I was about 12 or 13 when the following incident occurred. I can’t remember the specifics of what we were doing, but I was helping my papaw with something, cutting wood or sorting through junk or something. I do remember it was in his shed that was attached to the house, and he was unhappy with how sloppily I was doing the work and chastised me for the effort. Being young and arrogant, believing myself much stronger and tougher than I actually was, I mouthed off back to him. I can’t remember what I said, probably something like, “Do it yourself, then.” But I do remember the response.
Papaw was about 6’4″ and at that point probably 260-270 pounds. He was one of the strongest men I’ve ever known, even though he was well beyond his prime by the time I came along. He had also served in the Korean War, where he had suffered a nearly fatal wound from a mortar shell. He lived the majority of his life with shrapnel in his neck because it was too close to his spinal cord to risk removing it. He was tougher than I can even dream of being.
Calmly, he set down whatever he had in his hands and walked to where I was working. He leaned down to me, put his index finger in my face, and spoke clearly, “Son, if you ever talk to me like that again, I’ll knock your teeth down your throat.” I stared at the thick finger, gnarled and scarred from a lifetime of hard labor, and then glanced into his eyes. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so cocky. In fact, I believed him more than I’ve believed anyone before or since. It’s hard to explain what I saw in his eyes. It wasn’t anger, more like disappointment that his oldest grandson could be so disrespectful. There was also sternness, a glimmer that dared me to test him. But more importantly, even in that moment, there was love. Not the touchy-feely sunshine and rainbows love that nurtures tender emotions, but genuine love, tough love, that told me he would not allow his oldest grandson to be a punk. He expected and demanded that I be someone worth knowing.
At some point, kids need this kind of tough love, this kind of sternness to teach them their place in society. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that. We’ve forgotten that discipline and respect for authority must be ingrained into a kid, especially a teenager, and especially a teenager like me. I’m grateful for that moment when my grandfather put the fear of death in me because it’s part of what made me the man I am, and while I’m far from perfect, I am a fairly respectable, productive member of society. Love sometimes has to be tough because this world and this life are difficult rides.